‘Lovely and peaceable grounds to cement partitions and bars’: Recollections of the ‘Guelph Jail’

This photo, from the Guelph Civic Museum’s archives, shows the Ontario Reformatory in Guelph in what is believed to be 1930.

  • This picture, from the Guelph Civic Museum's collection, shows a view of the grounds in front of the Ontario Reformatory in the early part of the 20th century.

As the City of Guelph investigates the possibility of creating a heritage conservation district in the area where the Ontario Reformatory once operated, people have begun sharing stories of their connections to this area, sometimes referred to as the “jail lands.”

These stories will form part of the study that will inform recommendations to city council regarding a possible heritage conservation district designation under the Ontario Heritage Act.

They may also be worth a read for anyone interested in the history of the place.

The connections people have shared to the jail lands and the surrounding area are many and varied. Some people simply said they valued the area for hiking and dog walks, while others have shared a connection to the property that goes back more than half a century.

The following are just a few of the many interesting comments and stories people have shared. They have been edited for brevity, but the full comments can be viewed at haveyoursay.guelph.ca/reformatory-district.

FROM JOHN VALERIOTE:

This film was taken in the 1940s by an uncle of John Valeriote, whose maternal grandfather, Edwin E. Hammond, was the stationary engineer who oversaw the installation and maintenance of the heating and plumbing system in the reformatory, from its beginning. Edwin (Ted), his wife Emma and their family lived on the site from 1911 until the late 1930s in a large stone house. John’s mother, Velma, was born in 1910, one year before the reformatory opened and died in 2001, the year it closed. The inmates, as part of the reformatory rehabilitation program, were required to build and maintain the stream, waterfalls, lake and the extensive gardens along York Road. Their work also included the lawns and gardens around the Hammond residence. Emma Hammond was a generous woman and would bake pies, cakes and cookies and leave them on the outside windowsills for the inmates to take back to their cells. She called them “her boys” and they appreciated her kindness.

FROM ANNETTE:

As a child, I spent most of my evenings and weekends biking around the city with friends and playing sports. The former OR (Ontario Reformatory) was a favourite spot with many children. There were baseball diamonds at one point where we played and then we would bike over to Rocky’s for a hot dog. Biking around the grounds was not only beautiful but safe and we would often see couples getting their wedding pictures taken on the grounds.

FROM ALLI:

I first discovered the OR grounds while working on a second-year geology project for university. The remains of the old quarry feature heavily in my report for the project and are an excellent example of the local dolostone formations created as a result of an ancient reef. I’ve found several fossils and small crystal formations in the quarry floor and walls.

FROM SIDNEY:

In the 1980s, I was working for a social service organization in Guelph and would visit several young adults who became incarcerated at the correctional centre to provide support and to make plans for a place to live upon their release. In addition to those interactions, what stayed with me was the stark contrast from the long driveway through beautiful and peaceful grounds to the cement walls and bars inside the institution.

FROM HILLARY:

I always feel special after visiting the Yorklands, or what we’ve called the Guelph Jail. I’ve walked there with dogs and babies. The scenery is tranquil and the buildings are magical in antiquity. It’s nice to learn more through these comments, and I hope the space is preserved and remains accessible.

FROM SHARYN SEIBERT:

My memories of the OR go back to when I was a small child, growing up in Cambridge. Our family would travel to Guelph and have summer picnics on the lovely lawns gracing the banks of Clythe Creek. It is a valuable resource in our community that needs to be preserved.

As a Guelph artist, I have visited the site numerous times to sketch, paint, photograph and have led groups on art talks throughout the property. The natural landscape provides a visually stunning panorama in all seasons. During the pandemic, the importance of this property’s healing power was evident, with families able to enjoy the property for picnics, dog walks and recreational hiking. In meeting some of the people visiting the property I have learned that it has been a destination for those living out of town, including K-W, Toronto, Mississauga, and Barrie. This valuable site could serve as a tourist draw for all of southern Ontario and beyond.

FROM CAMERON SHELLEY:

I often enter the reformatory lands paddling on the Eramosa river. One of the great attractions of that stretch of water is the prolific birdlife.

For example, every year there is a great blue heron (or its descendants) who fish in the river in the vicinity of Clythe Creek.

Other herons, blue and green, occupy the shoreline from there to upstream of the trestle bridge, along with kingfishers, ducks, geese, blackbirds, swallows, and sometimes osprey and egrets.

The Eramosa river is a treasure for paddlers as well as hikers and cyclists, and the stretch in the reformatory from the CPR tracks to beyond the trestle bridge are its crown jewels.

FROM MARK MCCULLAGH:

Whenever walking in the reformatory grounds I think about the possibility, if we are ambitious, of making this a destination park. By “ambitious” I mean ambitious in the way that NYC was when they made Central Park. Obviously, it wouldn’t be on that scale. But why not plan with that degree of ambition? We have here a site that would support a park that highlights our natural blessings and would also host sports fields, games areas, outdoor theatre and so on. A place worth a day trip.

FROM DAN MAITLAND:

Six or more years ago, Lorne Jamieson, former farm manager at Ignatius, and I met with the former farm manager of the correctional centre. We were gathering information about the former farm fields in front of the centre where inmates planted and harvested potatoes among other crops. The corrections manager recounted that on occasion inmates would uncover arrow heads while working the potato fields. While this posed a “security” concern, it also confirmed that the lands were a traditional hunting area.

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